It’s been over a week since I was at Chislehurst Caves in south London — standing 350 feet below ground in total darkness while the sound of bombs echoed through the 20 miles of caves around me — and the experience still gives me the shivers…

I still haven’t forgotten the urge to stare at the lamps on the floor to avoid looking into the darkness around me, for fear of seeing something I didn’t want to. I still can’t stop thinking about the stories I heard; of the young woman killed at what is now known as the Haunted Pool, and of the 15,000 people who slept in the dark, damp caves throughout World War II.

They say that this uneasiness is down to a kind of sensory deprivation: that we’re so used to light pollution in big cities like London that, when faced with this level of darkness, our minds start to imagine things in place of what they expect to see. But it’s hard to thnk that clearly when you’re so far away from normality and shrouded in complete darkness (more on that later). It’s hard to even get your bearings because there are no signals telling you where to turn, and every other sense seems heightened.

The history of the caves

Like most things associated with Chislehurst Caves, their past is surrounded in mystery. The guides will tell you they were dug by the druids and the Romans, but a quick Google search leads you to a few archaeologists who have cast doubt on that theory with the insistence that they are no more than a couple of hundred years old.

During the Second World War, the caves were used as shelters; their depth meant that, despite the cold, cramped and damp conditions, they were competitively attractive alternatives to the world above.

Chislehurst Caves rules board

Image: Ian May on Flickr

Incredibly, 15,000 people lived down here at any one time during the war; there’s even a Red Cross hospital, a citizens advice bureau, and a church within the miles of caves, and each ‘pitch’ had its own address where post could be delivered. All of this was provided for a whole family for about £5 in today’s money: it’s a small price to pay for safety.

The tour

A tour of Chislehurst Caves lasts around 45 minutes and takes you through about a mile of the 20 miles of tunnels. It’s not for the feint of heart: you’ll be plunged into total darkness for a few minutes of the tour, and the guide will do their best to scare you as silly as possible with stories of ghosts, murder and human sacrifice.

Chislehurst Caves, south east London

Image: A Peace of London

And if you were thinking you’ll have your trusty smartphone to light your way, then think again: there are no lights other than the gas lamps given to a few of the group at the start of the tour to light the way.

Which all just adds to the ambience and the relief of getting back to normality at the end of the tour. But it also makes Chislehurst Caves one of the most unusual — and enjoyable — experiences in London. Just don’t look behind you…

Opening hours: tours leave on the hour between 10am and 4pm every day

Nearest station: Chislehurst

More information:

Featured image credit: socarra on Flickr




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